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Wild’s Jason Zucker scores his most important goal with #Give16 campaign

Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker met with children and their parents after the Wild’s game Wednesday night, Nov. 21, against Ottawa at Xcel Energy Center. The event was sponsored by #Give16, the foundation run by Zucker and his wife Carly that has raised more than $1 million to benefit patients at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. (Courtesy of Peter Heidorn)

ST. PAUL -- Jason Zucker strolled into Suite 25 sporting a glittery suit jacket, a recognizable grin and a full heart Wednesday night, Nov. 21, as dozens of kids and their parents welcomed their favorite Minnesota Wild forward.

They had just watched Zucker assist on the winning goal against the Ottawa Senators at the Xcel Energy Center, and now he was right there in the flesh inviting back slaps, high-fives and autographs.

“Hey, how’s everybody doing?” Zucker asked.

Silence but for the proverbial chirping crickets.

Then a peewee hockey player named Rafael Flores rushed up to Zucker and asked with nary a hint of irony why he was so tall.

“That’s a first,” chuckled Zucker, who stands all of 5 feet 10.

Next Flores teed up a joke featuring the Wild’s mascot.

“Why did Nordy cross the road?”

“I don’t know, why?” said Zucker.

“Because it was too Wild,” said Flores.

Laughter erupted. The ice melted. And the suite came alive.

It was a night for children, their parents, friends and philanthropists to celebrate health and express their gratitude to the Zuckers, including Jason’s wife, Carly.

The couple’s campaign #Give16, has raised more than $1 million in the past year. They welcomed patients and their families and representatives from several businesses to fill 16 suites at Wednesday’s game. The money helped build a replica suite and broadcast studio at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. Ribbon cutting is Monday.

The Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio is an 800-square-foot theater that includes a ticketed entrance, food and beverages, and a large projection screen where children and their families can experience what it is like to attend a Wild game live. The studio was designed to host celebrity visits, stage game shows and belt out tunes.

“It’s phenomenal,” Zucker said. “We’re really excited to have all of our charity partners, to host them and show really what the suite is all about at the hospital. It’s getting these kids out of what they’re going through and enjoy a hockey game and be kids again.”

The Zuckers initiated the fundraising campaign by donating $160,000. The #Give16 campaign, namesake of Zucker’s uniform number, encourages people to donate in denominations of $16.

The Zuckers also will donate $1,600 for every goal Jason scores. He has six goals this season.

“It’s humbling,” said Carly Zucker, who hosts the show “Overtime” on KFAN. “It all happened in just over a year. To see it actually happening is exciting.”

The couple became emotionally attached to the hospital in 2016 after Jason befriended 8-year-old Tucker Helstrom, who proclaimed to be Zucker’s “biggest fan.”

Helstrom was battling osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Zucker regularly visited Tucker in the hospital, where the two talked hockey, strategy -- and why Zucker did not shoot more.

Helstrom died in July 2016. The experience changed the Zuckers’ lives.

“That hospital means everything to us,” Jason said. “It’s become family for us; the workers, the nurses, the doctors, the patients, the families -- they’re all great people and they’ve affected us in a lot of ways.”

The Zuckers sponsored “Team Tucker’s Locker” inside the Kyle Rudolph End Zone, which the Vikings tight end funded to allow children and teenagers to socialize with fellow patients outside of their rooms.

“Carly is the main inspiration behind all of this,” Zucker said. “She came up with the #Give16 campaign for donating per goal and recruiting fans to get involved with it as well.”

Tanya Guthrie and her 11-year-old son Mason Ward were among the grateful parents and patients who watched Wednesday’s game against the Senators in one of the suites. They shared the chronology of Mason’s battle against cancer and Crohn’s disease, which causes painful inflammation of the intestines.

“She cries every time,” Mason said, jabbing at his tearful mother.

“He doesn’t realize how bad it was,” Guthrie said.

Four years ago, Ward was airlifted to Masonic Children’s Hospital with a tumor in his chest. He was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, which attacked Mason’s immune system. Doctors discovered another tumor on his neck.

“We were at Children’s for three months of really intense chemotherapy,” said Guthrie, who lives in Rice Lake, Wis. “He was able to beat it and was good. But a year later he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.”

Two weeks ago, Ward returned to the hospital to have an abscess surgically removed.

“The worst thing was I didn’t get to see my friends at all,” Ward said of his multiple hospitalizations. “The best thing is that I don’t have to have so many surgeries anymore.”

Ward was asked what he was most excited to see at Wednesday’s game.

“When the Wild win,” he said.

Minnesota accommodated Ward’s wish with a 6-4 nail-biting victory.

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